My stomach dropped as I climbed inside the rental car and saw the gear shift stick between me and my passenger (friend!), Alicia. By looking for the cheapest rental car possible, dang you frugality, I had accidentally booked a manual car instead of an automatic. My mind flashed back to me at 21 years old convincing four girlfriends that I could drive the South African terrain into Swaziland in a manual car, conveniently forgetting to mention to them that I had only learned how to drive manual the summer before on country back roads. I like to think I handled that road trip well, but I also think I was more fearless at 21. It’s been over a decade since then and I had driven manual plenty of other times, but I not on the “other side of the road” since that African road trip.
Bringing myself back to the present I took a breath and stepped out of the car, practically sprinting back into the car rental office. “I am fully capable of driving a manual car,” I smiled at the receptionist. “I was just not mentally prepared for it. Do you have any automatic cars available for hire?” Her no wasn’t sorrowful at all, more annoyed. I smiled again and went back outside.
“I can drive a stick shift, Alicia.” I said aloud, more for my benefit that hers. Her response was immediate, “I believe you! I can’t help at all as I don’t have a clue how to drive manual”. She was super supportive, even when my mind went blank and I forgot to push down the clutch when attempting to start the car. Haha, oops.
Driving manual is like riding a bike, really. It all came back as I started driving around Hobart, even while using my left hand and driving on the left hand side of the road. As soon as I began to pick up speed, however, the car refused to accelerate. I had the pedal to the metal as they say, and it started going slower instead of faster. What? My first thought was that I was doing something wrong. We had just entered onto the highway after I had barely made it over a hill when I pulled over onto the shoulder. I took a deep breath, once again telling Alicia that I knew how to drive a manual. I am a safe driver, I am! After I gave myself a pep talk I tried again. This time we were halfway up a hill when I had to pull over again, the stupid car just wasn’t shifting gears and accelerating the way it was supposed to. Whyyyyyy? I looked in my rearview mirror at the abandoned car behind me, also on the shoulder of the road. I tried again and again to get the car started and moving forward and every time I tried we rolled backwards. Cars, trucks, monster trucks, bigger than monster trucks were flying past us around the curves on the highway. Some honking, all speeding.
Swallowing my pride and after many nudges from Alicia, I finally agreed to call the car rental company. I had a short, curt, and demeaning conversation with a receptionist, let’s call her Kasey, who at one point said, “Didn’t you notice it was a manual when you got in?” Kasey was convinced I had it in reverse, I wasn’t, but my second guessing nature and natural inclination towards I must be the one doing something wrong, had me agreeing with her. Telling me that the worst thing I could do was to panic, Kasey instructed me to try and try again. I actually wasn’t panicked, I was irritated. Alicia was extremely calm this whole time, both of us keeping our nervous energy on the inside (aside from my terrible shaky leg on the clutch).
I ended up rolling backwards into the left lane of the highway around the abandoned car (still rolling backwards mind you) and back onto the shoulder in order to avoid smashing into it. To say we got a few more honks would be pretty accurate. Finally, Alicia succeeded in convincing me to call roadside service with a simple statement, “It’s not safe.” I agreed, this was ridiculous, and absolutely not safe. How in the world was I able to drive a manual for the first 15 minutes of this journey (not to mention the last 12 years) and then forget? How does that work? I was frustrated and grateful, at least we were still safe.
When the police officer pulled over on his motorcycle I can fully guarantee that I had never been more grateful of a cop stopping behind my vehicle in my entire life. I beamed at him, relieved as I rolled down my car window. After explaining the situation to Steve, (real name because he is AWESOME) he began coaching me through what to do, even though, I promise I knew what to do! Steve changed his mind halfway through his instructions and asked me to get out of the car.
Less than 1 minute of sitting in the rental Steve shook his head, got out of the car and said, “The clutch is gone, this car is broken.” VINDICATION. And relief. Also, I am not a mechanic and I know next to zilch about cars so for all of you reading this who already guessed that the clutch was gone, good job. I am happy for you. I called the rental place back and wouldn’t you know, Kasey completely changed her tune when I explained what transpired since our last little chat. She promised to get a tow truck to us immediately and then hoped we would ‘stay warm’ in the chill Tasmania winter. Jee, thanks.
Steve stayed with Alicia and I the whole time, stating he couldn’t leave “damsels in distress” and called for another cop car to come and block the lane further down as cars continued to speed around the curves. He gave thumbs up to the cars being safe and opened his arms wide to the more reckless drivers. Seriously, I love Steve.
Almost 30 minutes later two men in a pick up truck showed up to tow the car… interesting. “I can smell that!” One of them said towards Steven as he neared the car. Neither men said a word in our direction as Steve ushered us to the back of their truck, what a good person he is. Steve pointed out the oil leaking from the car and I heard one of them tell the other, “Probably needs a whole new gearbox.” We sat in the truck as the car was hooked up. Silence. One man sat in the broken car to steer it behind us while the other merged the truck on the highway. Silence. “So are you Jason, or is the other one Jason?” I asked referring to the name Kasey had given of who was picking us up. “We both are.” Then. Silence.
By the time we got back to the car rental’s office I was fuming. What kind of car rental loans a broken car. In all fairness, I know that you can’t predict when a clutch will go, but surely some kind of safety tests are in place before cars are hired out so you can try not to hand over a worthless car. We stood for a good 10 minutes in the office waiting for Kasey to come and speak with us. She finally emerged and without preamble started explaining how she had given us an upgrade and an automatic car was ready for us.
I gave her a hard look. “I am sorry, I don’t know if I am ready to get back into one of your cars.” Kasey looked a little taken aback and said, “We give our cars safety checks before they go out, there is no way to predict when a clutch goes. People rent out manuals without knowing how to drive them. The last person who rented the car must have driven it to the ground. We are not blaming you.”
“Of course not, it’s not my fault,” I mentioned a few other things about how we lost half the day already, etc. “No one even asked us if we are okay,” I shook my head not believing how this huge safety hazard didn’t even make a blimp on this car rental’s radar. Kasey paused and looked at us. “That’s just the boys. Are you okay?” She asked quickly. Not exactly flippantly, but not with any deep conviction either.
I held back my anger as I realized I actually appreciated her no-nonsense attitude and really wanted to head out to the Tahune Airwalk. It didn’t hit me later as I was driving the automatic out on the open road that just a few hours before, they said they didn’t have an automatic car. Hmmmm…
In the midst of the silent guys coming to get the car I didn’t get to properly say goodbye to my hero of the day, Steve. Thanks for everything, Steve!
We made it to the Tahune Airwalk.